Wednesday, January 16, 2013

ACE - Will the Broadband Bring Bread to Africa’s Poor?

VP Njie-Saidy at the launch of ACE

In a popular cyber café at the heart of the Gambia’s business hub, Serrekunda, Mafuji Ceesay was staring at the computer screen as if reading an important mail. In reality, the 29-year-old Gambian was waiting for the hour-glass dancing before his eyes to stop. With a tinge of hopelessness, he right-clicked on the mouse for options and refreshed the system, hoping to make a breakthrough. No improvement.
    “As you can see for yourself, I have been here for the past eight minutes unable to view my email inbox. The whole of yesterday I could not access my email because the network was down,” he decried.  


    Mafuji was not alone in this dilemma in the air-conditioned room of about a dozen other web surfers. In fact, internet connectivity in Gambia can be a nightmare, especially during the prime internet hours, from 11am to 5pm.
     Introduced in Gambia in 1998 through to a collaborative effort with UNDP, internet services have to a significant degree improved over the years, but still leave much to be desired. Fourteen years on, while those connected are accustomed to slow internet speed, statistics show that tens of thousands are still waiting to be connected.
      However, the hype is that this status quo will soon change, as the country connects to a US$700 million international submarine cable. Not only Gambia, 22 other countries will have their telecom services transformed, courtesy of a consortium comprising three European countries and twenty African countries.
      The Africa Coast Europe consortium which goes by the acronym ACE is led by France Telecom-Orange, currently serving France, Portugal Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mali, Niger and Sao Tome and Principe.
     On Wednesday Dec. 19, the consortium rolled out its submarine cable that, according to experts, extends over 17,000 km from Brittany in France to Cape Town in South Africa, with high-capacity broadband connectivity.
    Done in grand-style here in Banjul, the official launch was presided over by Gambia’s vice president, Isatou Njie-Saidy. It was held at the ACE complex overlooking the bourgeois neighbourhood, Brusubi, where hundreds of local and international delegates gathered.
    "ACE poses a gigantic leap in the development of ICT infrastructure in Africa, especially for the improvement of both connectivity broadband update,” vice president Njie-Saidy has said in her launching speech, read on behalf of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh. 
Delegates being entertained...

     The optimism rooted in Isatou Njie-Saidy’s musings has a chiming uniformity, devoid of any significant dissent, among experts, policymakers and businesspeople.  For countries such as Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Sao Tome & Principe and Sierra Leone, this will be their first access to a submarine cable.
      Lamin Camara, the deputy permanent secretary, Gambia’s Information and Communications ministry, took the delegates through his ministry’s struggles.
“Once upon a time, The Gambia was among few countries in the region not directly connected to the global network of submarine fibre cable infrastructure for broadband development… After due consultations and reviews, the most adequate, attractive, efficient and viable option for Gambia was to connect to the ACE.”
    According to expert explanations, the ACE system deploys wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) technology, which is currently the most advanced for submarine cables, and has an overall potential capacity of 5.12 terabytes. But how does a layman understands this?
     Papa Yusupha Njie, a prominent Gambian ICT entrepreneur, is the CEO of an international award-winning Gambian ICT firm, Unique Solutions.

My analogy is that we have discovered paradise on earth,” he said. “One of my colleagues mentioned that its like normal traffic lane, you have all cars on one traffic lane, Benz, Toyota, etc. But with ACE, there are so many lanes that you expect that moving from A to B will take you 30 to 40 times quicker than the current situation. Of course we are talking in terms of internet, and for telephone we are talking of better quality.”

But, how would the landing of the submarine cable to provide faster internet connectivity and better phone calls translate into socio-economic development for ACE member countries, as being floated, when for majority of citizens of a larger number of member countries, internet is a luxury?

Papa Yusupha Njie, whose Unique Solutions company is a private-sector member of the ACE, was naturally not short of explanations here.
     “As somebody who is technology enthusiast, I believe ACE can change a lot of things…Firstly, the economic benefit. We have seen so many studies, the World Bank, the IMF studies showing how when submarine cable lands results in direct increase in the GDP of those countries.  So, we hope that software developers, hardware vendors spring up from the landing of the cable to create jobs that our young people need. We are of the opinion that you will see a proliferation of internet in Gambian schools. I have always said there should be no difference between a Gambian child in Sukuta and that child sitting in New York because at the end of the day, we believe with broadband, kids will be able to use those tablets that have all applications from math to story books…

“Of course the biggest importance is cost. Besides, we are not going through a third party, there is another element of security. I always like to make this point that we are truly independent now because we have our own landing point. And what would this bring? We would reduce internet and telephony charges. I believe broadband will open doors to more services – data, internet, tele-medicine services, e-government, agriculture - our farmers can access real-time information. I have seen how submarine cables have transformed countries.”

    Nonetheless, joining the consortium came at huge cost for the resource-poor tiny west African country, digging deep into its national purse, as even acknowledged by the director of budget at the finance ministry, Momodou Sabally.
    Although Gambia’s US$25M contribution was paid through a World Bank grant, 51 percent of which was pre-financed for the private sector, to be paid within six years, yet could ACE not be a misplaced priority giving that 63 percent of the population lives below poverty line, some lacking needs as basic as water?
   Justifying his government investment, however, Permanent Secretary Camara was unapologetically defensive.

“I don’t think it’s a misplaced priority,” he said, “because we are not intervening in ICT and forgetting others. There are concurrent projects, there even is a new water project recently signed. Lots of development is going alongside, in agriculture, fisheries, and so on.

And Papa Yusupha Njie seems to be engulfed with an unshakable certainty that ACE has the potential to, and will catalyze the terribly-needed socio-economic development, not just growth, for Africa and “do more for getting us out of poverty than anything else.”
“The development community now sees access to communication - internet, video, voice - as a human rights. I understand the difficulty of choosing between a bag of rice and cyber café, but I am telling parents out there that for us to get out of generations of slavery, poverty, this is the way out. I believe if we equip our children with ICT skills, they can go anywhere in the world and survive…So I am very passionate about this question.

“I do not want us to choose between a bowl of rice, glass of water and bandwidth because I believe having access to bandwidth, having skills on how to repair computers, build applications, is a way of getting us that bowl of rice on the table, that pipe borne water because these people will now have the economic independence to bring these to their towns and villages. The reality on the ground we all know, but this is not a short-term investment, its an investment that is here to stay. And above all else, its an investment that will benefit our people.”

Yes, after four years of talking the walk as well as walking the talk, hopes and misgivings, the cable has finally come to life. But how the US$700 million investment would be optimally utilised to benefit ordinary citizens remains to be seen. This, in a free-market system like Gambia’s, is a mammoth task primarily placed on the relative not-too-broad shoulders of Papa Yusupha Njie and Co.

Currently freelancing for international news agency, such as IPS and RFI, the author Saikou Jammeh is the editor of proscribed Daily News


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